Know the Enemy

By Randal Stevens · August 22, 2010

The idea for this blog came to me initially while I was typing last week's blog, "To Write, One Must Read Pt. 1."  While that blog, which I hope will be the first in an ongoing series geared around helpful screenwriting books, was intended to ease the aspiring writer's mind about his or her own eccentricities when it comes to the writing process, it shares a commonality with this blog in the sense that the message behind both is that you cannot succeed at writing unless you are reading. 

In regards to this week's blog, I specifically mean that you cannot succeed at writing screenplays unless you are reading screenplays.  The enemy to which the title refers has two meanings:
1) The nuts and bolts of the screenplay itself.
2) Your weaknesses and limitations as a writer.
Point #1 is something that a surprising number of aspiring screenwriters overlook.  Let's be honest with ourselves, folks – screenwriting is not easy and is infrequently fun.  There are days when the writing process is so infuriating that you feel like you'd rather be masturbating with sandpaper; or, for our genital-differed lady readers, a cactus. If it's not one thing, it's another – sometimes you're stuck on surface level nitpicks such as whether it's more in line for your character to say "butt" instead of "ass," sometimes you're stuck because once you get to the climactic car chase, you have no idea how to actually write a car chase.  There are all sorts of quagmires just waiting to bog you down.
But they've bogged down every screenwriter.  Those whose scripts made it to the silver screen figured out how to get through them.  How did they get through them?  The same way you can – by reading the successful scripts of the past.  
Screenplays are the purest form of a film's story.  You can pick up on the meat of a screenplay by watching a movie, but you'll also be focused on the editing, the way the film is shot, the interpretation of characters by specific actors and other supplements that distract from the purest essence of the story.  If you want to know how to craft a great detective story, don't just guess; read Robert Towne and Roman Polanski's script to Chinatown.  With no audio or visual distractions, you can see the intricacies of how the writers established the nuances of the Jake Gittes character, you'll get a grasp for the pacing of the story in the sense of how spaced out the numerous plot twists were, and quite often you'll see scenes or details that flesh out the story even more, but didn't make the final cut of the film.  
I also stress point #1 because many people assume that since they've watched movies and they have a word processor, they can immediately sit down and begin writing a screenplay.  This is pants-shittingly absurd.  Just because a person has a kitchen and access to produce does not mean they can cook.  When I used to write script coverage, I was amazed at how many people lacked even the most basic competency when it came to formatting, spelling and grammar.  I'm not saying you need to use FInal Draft to write your scripts, but smart people can tell when they've been written on Microsoft Word and that's a surefire way to get your script thrown out immediately.
Point #2 is a sore point for anyone who has even a sliver of ego, and honestly, if you're a writer, then you're egotistical to one degree or another. So this is a sore point for everybody.  Just because you have a finished screenplay, doesn't mean it's good.  Even if it's good, that doesn't mean there aren't bad parts in it.  
Every writer has different strengths.  You know the "and" that you'll often see when a movie has been written by more than one person?  That means there have been rewrites done on that script and chances are those rewrites were done because whoever was brought on was better at something than the person who initially wrote the script.  Some writers are better with punch dialogue, some are better with exploring a character's inner turmoil, others know where and how to insert kick ass action.  
If you're trying to write a comedy, or you want to write horror or you're stuck on a biopic, read examples of screenplays from those genres.  Recognize where you need improvement and see how the greats have done it.  Sometimes you'll be surprised to see that a breathtaking fight scene was simply written as "Joe and Ben get in fist fight.  Ben eventually knocks Joe out."  
And since we're not living in 1970 where the only people with the access to scripts and films were those enrolled in high-falootin' film schools, it's pretty easy to seek out and find the scripts for the films you admire online.  Three websites that I frequent are:
Joblo's Movie Scripts – regularly updated, scripts are delineated as either shooting scripts or first drafts and a large portion of them can be downloaded.
The Internet Movie Script Database – also fairly regularly updated, searchable by genre and they have a good chunk of TV scripts for those of who aspiring to be the next Aaron Sorkin.
Screenplays For You – not as regularly updated and quite a random mix of screenplays, but some of that mix includes obscure films like Starman and Kafka.
For L.A. residents, you can look into these two bookstores to purchase reprints of actual scripts:
Script City
8033 Sunset Boulevard
Box 1500
Los Angeles, CA 90046
Hollywood Book and Poster
6562 Hollywood Boulevard
Hollywood, CA 90028
For NYC residents, you can stop by:
Random tables in Soho where shady looking characters sell shady reproductions of scripts (and iPhone protectors).